Monthly Archives: November 2011

Minds/Machines issue of Journal of Evolution and Technology

A new issue of The Journal of Evolution and Technology is taking shape! You can find my editorial here, and just click on the logo from there (or use the link above) to have a look at the home page and access the articles.

This issue is devoted to the topic of minds and machines – which includes the prospect of mind uploading and related ideas. As I said over on my personal blog, there’s more to come, and there will be something for everyone (and probably something for everyone to hate).

In its final form, the minds/machines issue will be the size of a small book, and it will capture many viewpoints, including those of both enthusiasts and sceptics about mind uploading. If anything, I tend to be a bit of sceptic about uploading. However, if you share that viewpoint you might like to have a look at Mark Walker’s pro-uploading article; perhaps it will change your mind (as it were), especially if your objection relates to issues of preservation of personal identity. Walker puts what seems to me the strongest argument yet that what matters most in personal identity would be retained if we could upload our identities into some sort of advanced computational substrate. Something would be lost, he says, but it might turn out that more would be gained. The argument turns on the relative importance of type identity and token identity, and the importance of superior capacities that we might obtain in an uploaded form.

As I say, I’m not entirely convinced by this – perhaps it’s because I think token identity is what we really care about (but if so, are we right to think this way?). Do have a look if these topics interest you. Conversely, you might be more impressed by Nick Agar’s arguments as to why we would be irrational to upload ourselves. He suggests a kind of Pascalian wager procedure, wherein we decide whether uploading will be beneficial or not. (E.g., what if Searle’s famous Chinese Room Thought experiment even might be the correct analysis? Even if you think Searle is wrong, are you sufficiently sure of that to be prepared to try uploading to some sort of non-biological substrate? What are the costs and benefits of being right or wrong? What probabilities should be assigned?)

In my humble opinion, both of these pieces will be much cited in the future. There is also plenty of other strong material in what we’ve already published or still have up our sleeves.

As I did over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, I’d like to thank my guest co-editor, Linda MacDonald Glenn, and our managing editor, Marcelo Rinesi, for their help in getting this far.

Negativity Bias

Karl Pribram and colleagues have presented evi...

While scientists have only fairly recently gotten around to studying cognitive biases, philosophers have been teaching about them for centuries-typically in the form of various logical errors. However, it is good that the scientific attention to these biases is serving to attract additional attention to them.

Everyone of us is, of course, loaded down with all sorts of cognitive biases. Some scientists even claim that such biases are hard wired into the brain, thus making them part of our actual anatomy and physiology. If so, it would seem to suggest that people might be more or less biased based on the specifics of their hard-wiring. This would help explain some of the variation in people when it comes to being able to reason well.

While we all suffer from cognitive biases (and other biases) we do have the capacity to resist and even overcome such biases and reason in a more objective manner. As this takes effort and training (as well as the will to want to think critically) it is not very common for folks to try to overcome these biases. Hence, bad reasoning tends to dominate.

One standard bias is known as negativity bias. While some people are more prone to focus on the negative than others, apparently we all have an inbuilt tendency to give more weight to negative information relative to positive information. This would help to account for the fact that people tend to consider a single misdeed to outweigh a large number of good deeds.

Of course, people do also have other biases that can lead them to weigh the positive more than the negative. For example, people tend to ignore or downplay negative aspects of people, causes, and things they like and weigh the positive more heavily. This often involves embracing inconsistency by applying different standards relative to what one likes or dislikes (see, for example, how Fox News and MSNBC in the States evaluate various political matters).

Interestingly, this bias seems to occur at neurological level. The brain actually has more neural activity when it is reacting to negative information than when reacting to positive information. Assuming these results apply generally, we are actually hard-wired for negativity.

The defense against this involves being aware of this bias and exhibiting even greater caution in assessing negative information-especially when it involves negative information about something we do not like. For example, folks who dislike the Tea Party will weigh negative information about them more heavily than positive evidence and will tend to make little effort to determine whether the evidence has been properly assessed. The same holds true for folks who dislike the Occupy Wall Street movement and its spin-offs. They will take any negative evidence as being quite significant and ignore or undervalue positive evidence.

This bias does help explain a great deal about how people see political events and assess them.

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Should You Kill the Backpacker?

I mentioned here that I was working on a new interactive activity at my Philosophy Experiments web site. Well, here it is:

Should You Kill the Backpacker?

It looks at some of the complications arising out of the Trolley Problem. More specifically, it largely relies on Judith Jarvis Thomson’s article, “The Trolley Problem”,  which appeared in The Yale Law Journal.

As yet, the activity hasn’t been subject to public scrutiny, so there are bound to be lacunae and errors in logic. Any feedback, therefore, would be much appreciated.

It’s probably worth mentioning that it’s sort of a f0llow up to another activity on the web site that deals with the same issues – but in a less sophisticated way – so if you haven’t yet seen that one, you might want to work through it first:

Should You Kill the Fat Man?

Do we need laws banning polygamy?

This is the hot topic for the week, following the judgment of a Canadian court upholding a ban on polygamous marriages.

Here are two online articles criticising the outcome of the case: one by Kate Heartfield, writing for The Province; the other by Stephanie Zvan in a post on her blog at freethoughtblogs.com.

I have a lot of sympathy for both of these pieces. That’s not to say that the case is wrongly decided as a matter of law – I think that’s quite a difficult question, and I’d like to think about it further. In particular, I would like to – *sigh* – read the 300+ page judgment in its entirety (does anyone have a link for it?).

One interesting issue for legal theorists is this: what if a statute was initially enacted to achieve a purpose that was in breach of such concepts as freedom of religion (which might have constitutional protection), but is now, generations later, best rationalised on some other, seemingly legitimate, basis? Should we now see the statute as serving a legitimate secular purpose? Perhaps … but it’s not just obvious. What if the constitutional protection of freedom of religion came along after the statute was enacted? Does that make a difference? I don’t see a clear philosophical answer to questions like that. Maybe it’s just a policy question. I’m open to hearing some views.

In any event, public policy on this issue in Canada will now be in a mess. It’s clear that the state won’t register polyamorous relationships (polygynous, polyandrous, or more complicated) as marriages. I could agree with this – in fact, I argue for exactly this in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (though not with any great enthusiasm … see for yourself if you don’t mind shelling out).

But that doesn’t mean that all such relationships are prohibited. You’d think it might end there, in fact: in Canada, polyamorous relationships are not prohibited, but nor are they registrable as marriages with whatever social and legal benefits that might entail. Full-stop. I could go along with that. But it seems that there is going to be a middle category of relationships that are actually prohibited, if they show sufficiently marriage-like properties – perhaps including extra-legal recognition as marriage through a religious ceremony. If so, that is just a mess. I don’t necessarily mind the state deciding what relationships it will extend its blessing – and certain legal privileges – to. But I don’t want it getting into the bedrooms of consenting adults with criminal bans on their private erotic arrangements, for which they are asking for no particular privileges from the state.

We should try to avoid dogma … especially if we haven’t read a legal judgment in its entirety, so as to see the full argument. I’d like to know more about the judge’s reasoning. But at the moment, I’m very sympathetic to Heartfield and Zvan.

What do you think?

NBA and Fair Pay

Various Federal Reserve Notes, c.1995. Only th...

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While baseball is supposed to be the American sport, we Yankees are also rather fond of basketball. As might be imagined, the ongoing NBA strike has caused dismay to the loyal fans (a group I do not, in fact, belong to).

The strike, like most strikes, is the result of a dispute between the employees (in this case the NBA players) and the owners As the players see it, they are not being fairly compensated for their efforts. The owners disagree. Because of this impasse, basketball fans will not be seeing any NBA games for a while.

On the face of it, this sort of strike might strike most people as rather absurd. After all, the mean average salary in the NBA is $5.15 million and the median average salary is $2.33 million. The low end salary is about $300,000. Given that the average household income in the US is $50,000 it would seem that the players have nothing at all to complain about. After all, the lowest paid player is still vastly better paid than the average American household.

On one hand, it is easy to dismiss the NBA players as being greedy. After all, almost anyone in the world would be very happy to make that sort of money working hard, let alone playing a game. These players are, obviously enough, extremely well paid and it would be rather odd to say that they are suffering an injustice because of their salaries.

On the other hand, the fairness of a salary is not simply a matter of the amount being paid.  To be specific, the fairness of a salary cannot be judged simply by the dollars being paid.  Other factors must be considered as well, such as the value and amount of the work being done. For example, if I said that someone was paid $12,000 a year it might be tempting to say that she is underpaid. However, if you then learn that the person only works one hour each month, then you might change your mind and think that she is actually overpaid. But, if your learn that each hour of work she does generates $5,000 in profit for her employer, then you might change your mind again and think that she is actually being underpaid for what she does.

In the case of the NBA players, it is not simply a matter that they want more money. Rather, they want a larger percentage of the profits (which, of course, means more money). The NBA players are able to command such high salaries because their play generates massive profits and they believe that they deserve a greater share of the profits that they generate. The owners, who generally do not get out on the court to play in the games, believe that they are (as owners) entitled to a significant share of the profits.

While the NBA players are coached and trained, people obviously pay the rather steep ticket prices to go see the players play. They do not go to see the owners count money. As such, the players are the main source of profits and, it could thus be argued, should be paid based on this contribution to the profits. The owners, in turn, should receive compensation based on the value that they contribute (that is, to the degree that their actions generate profit).

Thus, while the NBA players enjoy rather hefty salaries, the dispute is still the classic dispute between the workers and the owners over who is entitled to what percentage of the income.  As noted above, the theoretical solution is easy enough: the workers are entitled to the value they create through their actions and the owners are also entitled to the value they create. Anything else would seem to be theft. As might be imagined, sorting out this division can be rather tricky. In the case of the NBA, people come to see the players. But, of course, the owners also play a role in making the professional games a possibility. After all, if the players just played on a public court and passed the hat for money, they would obviously not make the money they do now.

This same question arises in other cases of employment. For example, FAMU charges $124.01 per credit hour for in state students, and out of state tuition is $552.03 per credit hour. This does not include other fees. I have 193 students taking three credit hours this semester and will have at least 160 in the spring.  As such, my labor does bring in a fair amount of money for the school. This, of course, only includes my teaching and excludes my administrative work (which is 20% of my assigned work-my four classes per semester are only 80% of my assigned work). As you might guess, my salary is way, way less than what the university charges my students to suffer through my classes. Naturally, there are various expenses involved with the students being in my class-the cost of the buildings, administrative costs and so on. As such, perhaps my salary is fair-that is, when all the legitimate costs are subtracted from what I bring in to the school what is left is what I am, in fact, paid.  However, if what I am paid is less than what I generate (minus the other legitimate costs) then my salary would seem to be unfair to the degree I am underpaid for my efforts.

Of course, my university is not aimed at making a profit and hence this almost certainly changes things. When a for-profit business is considered, one rather effective way to make a profit is to pay workers less than the value they actually create through their labors. As many other have argued, a profit tends to require that someone is either being paid less than the value they provide or is paying more than the value they receive (on the customer end). The stock counter is, of course, that the people who get less or pay more value what they get (either the paycheck or the product/service) more than the other party.  To use a made up example, imagine that my workers value the time they put into making one of my widgets at $1, but they actually contribute $2 to the value of the widget. That would enable me to (at least) make $1 profit per widget with no one feeling they have been treated unfairly. Of course, if they knew that their work was worth $2 rather than $1, they would no doubt see me as acting unfairly. Of course, I could also profit from the customer. If it cost me $5 to make and sell a widget and my customers valued it at $6, then I would make $1 profit per widget at the expense of the customer. Of course, if they knew that the widget could be bought for $5, they would probably feel cheated as well. Of course, if I could convince them that I have a right to a profit (that is, money for nothing and perhaps some chicks for free) then they would think that it was fair. The challenge is, of course, justifying that profit-after all, it does seem to be by its very nature money for nothing. If it was money for something, then there would seem to be no profit left over for that money would have to go to something.

But, one might object, my brief discussion is simplistic and naive and fails to properly capture the reality of the financial situation. That is, profit can be generated without anyone being treated unfairly and without concealing any facts.

Going back to the NBA players, it is obvious that they are very well paid. But it is not obvious that they are actually being treated fairly by the owners.

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Julian Baggini on religion and science

The recent (or current) debate throughout the intertubes that has involved contributions from Keith Ward, Jerry Coyne, Jim P. Houston, Ophelia Benson, Jean Kazez, and the gods alone know who else, actually began with an article by Julian Baggini in “Comment is free” – The Guardian‘s online op.ed. site. Given how confusing (at least to me) the debate has become, with issues continually ramifying, I thought it might be worthwhile to go back to Baggini’s original contribution, and try to work out what view he was actually putting … and what sort of view he was opposing.

Baggini’s piece is headed, “Religion’s truce with science can’t hold” – but I don’t know whether that heading was his or a sub-editor’s. Baggini begins by identifying the sort of claim that he will be disputing:

that religion and science are compatible because they are not talking about the same things. Religion does not make empirical claims about how the universe works, and to treat it as though it did is to make a category mistake of the worst kind. So we should just leave science and religion to get on with their different jobs free from mutual molestation.

As an example, he cites Stephen Jay Gould’s argument that science aims to find empirical truths or answer “how” questions, while religion aims to find out the answers to “why” questions, such as whether there may be a meaning or purpose behind what is happening. He then cites some other examples. Baggini’s general target seems to be the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria, conceived of as the idea that there is one area of teaching authority related to the observable world and its functioning, and another relating to meaning or purpose.

I’ve had a fair bit to say about NOMA myself, not least here. I doubt that there are two non-overlapping “magisteria”; there may be many of these so-called “magisteria”, in which case, however, there is much continuity and overlap.

In any event, Baggini’s response is to challenge the separation of “why” and “how” questions. He points out that often when we ask “why” a particular phenomenon is observed we are really asking what processes explain it – e.g. “Why does water boil 100 degrees Celsius?” It is natural enough to say that science does, indeed, answer “why” questions. It answers such questions by revealing facts about the mechanisms and processes involved.

Conversely, there is a sense in which religion answers “how” questions. If someone asks “Why does the universe have certain properties that are conducive to the development of life and intelligence?” religious thinkers may tell us something about how the universe came to be as it is, namely by a process of divine will and activity. Often, a body of religious doctrine will include quite specific claims about just how a super-agency intervened in the order of things.

Baggini accepts that some forms of religion do not make claims that of that kind. However, he thinks that, “any religious belief that involves an activist, really-existing God and claims that religion has something to say about why things happen, must also be encroaching on questions of how they happen, too.” Once that happens, he thinks, such a religious belief starts to compete with the explanations given by science and rational inquiry more generally.

All this may be slightly too strong. I could imagine that someone who believes in an activist, really-existing God might nonetheless avoid competing with scientific/rational explanations – perhaps by making only very vague and abstract claims about how God goes about intervening or has intervened in the past. If the doctrinal claims are sufficiently vague and abstract, they may be unfalsifiable, and they do not really compete with other claims. Still, Baggini is correct that religion very often does make claims that can and do compete with those of scientists and scholars.

Baggini concludes with a fundamental point:

What really counts, what should really make the difference between assent and rejection of an empirical claim, is not whether it is compatible with science, but whether an evidence-led, rational examination of a view supports it better than competing alternatives.

Thus, Baggini is not so much concerned about whether religion makes claims that are simply inconsistent with science, especially if it is narrowly conceived. The issue is whether some kinds of religion make claims that compete with, yet are better than, scientific and humanistic alternatives (when all the claims are subjected to evidence-led, rational examination).

Clearly, he thinks that religion of the kind he is discussing does end up making claims that are not well supported once examined. He does not spell this out with examples, so I’m not entirely sure what sorts of claims he has in mind. A claim that the fossil record is best explained by a massive divinely-caused flood several thousand years ago might be one example. Here, the claim that God caused the fossil record to be in the form we see by means (i.e. this is how he did it) of creating a huge flood is less than compelling when compared with claims made by modern sciences that describe the age and history of the Earth, the evolution of life over millions of years, the means by which some creatures came to be fossilised, and so on.

An example from outside the natural sciences might relate to the Tower of Babel. If we explain the diversity of human languages as being caused by God by means of making our ancestors suddenly speak many mutually incomprehensible languages several thousand years ago, then this explanation will compete with the explanations given by scholars who study the development of languages. The religious explanation of how it happened is, once again, less than convincing.

Baggini seems to think that these sorts of religious explanations – explanations that describe how a supernatural agency brought about a result – will always lose out, once subjected to evidence-led, rational examination, with due consideration of the serious alternatives. Once there’s outright competition between science and religion, “science always wins, hands down”.

Baggini does not claim that this is the complete picture – he foreshadows more pieces on related aspects or topics. Some of his claims may be slightly too strong. After all, as mentioned above, religious explanations can be very vague, so much so as not to be genuine competitors with other explanations. But surely that is also a problem for religion, at least potentially – it can become too “thin” to be attractive. I do, moreover, think he is correct that there’s always been a tendency for religion to offer explanations that can, as we learn more about the world, come into competition with reason-based explanations. Not all theological systems make these claims, but many do. When they do so, furthermore, the claims tend not to fare well.

The debate has moved forward a long way since Baggini’s piece, and Baggini himself might want to qualify or clarify some of his argument in the light of the debate. Certainly, my own understanding of his views may be flawed in some way. But anyway, this is where the current round of disputation started. Best at least to be clear about that much. Like Baggini, I plan to say more about the issues.

Corporations as People

Immanuel Kant developed his own version of the...

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Due to some oversight in my education, I had read various philosophical accounts of person hood before I was exposed to the seemingly absurd notion that corporations are persons. Of course, corporations are legally persons-they would generally fail to meet most philosophical definitions of person. Being a legal person is, as might be imagined, rather different from being a person in the philosophical sense. Philosophical accounts of what it is to be a person are generally subject to rather demanding criticisms based on intuitions, logic and so forth. In the case of legal persons, this seems to be largely a matter of getting a law or ruling that says that X is a legal person. There is, as far as I know, no requirement that such a law be well founded, well argued or even intuitively plausible. In theory, then, anything could be made into a legal person-subject to the whims of voters, lawyers or judges.

While I have argued elsewhere that corporations should not be considered persons, I am going to (at least for the sake of this short essay) reverse my usual view and instead say that the person hood of corporations should be embraced. They should be regarded as persons like any other person and accorded to full moral and legal status as persons (including rights, duties and obligations).

This would, on the face of it, entail that corporations should be treated just like any other person for tax purposes. After all, for me to fall under special tax laws because I am a Mohawk-French-English American would seem unfair to other Americans. Likewise, the fact that someone is a corporate-American (no doubt with multiple citizenships) should not thus entitle them to special treatment in this regard. As such, if a corporation really is a person, then they should fill out the standard tax forms and be entitled only to the standard deductions and so on. Alternatively, we should all receive the same tax (and other legal) rights as the corporation-Americans (or corporation-Australians or whatever). Given the benefits corporation receive, the rest of us would seem to be second class people in comparison. This seems to be wrong.

It might be replied that corporations, the legal people,  are special and thus entitled to benefits that lesser “meaty people” are not entitled to. This would seem to be a rather hateful sort of discrimination against us meaties in favor of the legalies. Then again, it could be accepted that the corporation is merely a legal fiction that is perpetuated because of its benefits to certain people (someone would need to break the news to Mitt Romney, though).

This view would also seem to entail that corporations would need to be citizens and thus entitled to all the benefits and responsibilities. To deny corporation-Americans the right to vote would seem to be a gross violation of their person hood. They should also be obligated to serve on juries, to register for selective service (well, at least the male corporations), and they should be counted in the census. There is, of course, the obvious problem of how the corporation-person would actually engage in voting or serve on the jury. After all, unlike other persons, the corporation person seems to have no actual nexus of person hood that could be in a specific location. There is also the problem that the corporation-person cannot actually think, talk, or write-unless it is accepted that it takes possession of employees and speaks through them. If so, the corporation could thus send a possessed member to vote, to serve on the jury or to serve in the military if it is drafted in times of war. Or perhaps the whole entity is the corporation-a collective person. In that case, the whole thing would seem to be the person. This would make the jury room rather crowded, should a corporation get summoned for duty.

It might be replied that this is all rather silly. Corporations are not some sort of mind that can possess individuals (as the gods were said to possess the oracles at Delphi) nor are they a collective mind composed of the people that work for them and the things they own. After all corporations have no minds, no personalities, no feelings, no thoughts, no beliefs, no desires, no perceptions, no life and so on. There would seem to be, to steal a bit from Nagasena, no self in regards to corporations. This, one might suspect, would seem to entail that they cannot be people-after all, nothing cannot be a person. Then again, perhaps it is wisest to again take them to be mere legal fictions rather than people in any meaningful sense. This would, of course, include granting them constitutional rights on the basis of being actual people.

However, I am committed to trying to treat corporations as people. Perhaps they can be treated as people in terms of their moral status and moral obligations. Of course, if they are morally people, then this would seem to have some interesting implications for moral theories. Since corporations apparently cannot possess virtues, then virtue theory would be out as a moral theory. The same would also apply to many forms of utilitarianism. Since, for example, corporations do not feel pleasure or pain, they would not count morally, so these theories would need to be rejected. Kant’s theory would also be right out-his account of persons and the role they play in morality would be completely incompatible with the corporation-person.  Of course, there is always the option of arguing that there are persons and there are corporation-people. They are both persons, but different sort of persons in fundamental ways. So different that one might suspect that corporations are not people.

I will be writing more about taking corporations to be people in the moral sense.

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Trolley Problem Question

This is just a quick curiosity thing, really. I’m working on another trolley problem activity for my Philosophy Experiments web site. (The original trolley problem activity is here.)

Anyway, I’ve been messing around with Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “Bystander at the Switch” scenario:

In that case you have been strolling by the trolley track, and you can see the situation at a glance: The driver saw the five on the track ahead, he stamped on the brakes, the brakes failed, so he fainted. What to do? Well, here is the switch, which you can throw, thereby turning the trolley yourself. Of course you will kill one if you do. But I should think you may turn it all the same.

I tend to agree that you may turn the trolley. But I’m curious about the legal situation here. If you turn the trolley, would you then be guilty of murder (i.e., in terms of the law)?

Judith Jarvis Thomson introduces the Bystander at the Switch scenario to illustrate the difference between “letting die” (i.e., if you just allow the trolley to continue so that it squashes the five workmen on the track) and “killing” (i.e., if you turn the trolley, thereby killing one person – albeit you save the lives of the five on the track).

So does something like the doctrine of double effect come into play here so that you wouldn’t be guilty of murder in this situation? Has this been established in case law or something?

Edit: Courtesy of John in the comments below, the legal defence has to do with “Necessity”. See:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necessity

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necessity_in_English_law

And John’s comment here: http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=3677#comment-39938

Should Zygotes be Considered People?

Oocyte viewed with HMC

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In the United States certain Republicans have been proposing legislation that would define a zygote as a legal person. The most recent instance occurred in Mississippi when voters were given the chance to approve or reject the following: “the term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.” The voters rejected this, but there are other similar attempts planned or actually in the works. There are, as far as I know, no serious attempts to push person hood back before fertilization (that is, to establish eggs and sperm as being persons).

Since this is a matter of law, whether or not a zygote is a legal person or not depends on whether such a law is passed and then passes legal muster. Given that corporations are legally persons, it does not seem all that odd to have zygotes as legal people. Or whales. Or forests. There is, after all, no requirement that legal personhood be established by considered philosophical argumentation.

From a philosophical perspective, I would be inclined to stick with what seems to be the general view: zygotes are not persons. I do accept the obvious: a zygote is alive (as is an amoeba or any cell in my body), a zygote has full human DNA (as does almost any cell in my body), and a zygote has the potential to be an important part of a causal chain that leads to a human being (as does any cell in my body that could be used in cloning). However, these qualities of a zygote do not seem to be sufficient to establish it as a person. After all, the relevant  qualities of the zygote seem to be duplicated by some of the cells in our bodies and it would be absurd to regard each of us as a collective of persons.

But, as I noted, the legal matter is quite distinct from the philosophical-after all, zygotes (or anything) could become legal persons with the appropriate legislation. This leads to a point well worth considering, namely the consequences of such a law.

The most obvious would be that abortion and certain forms of birth control (such as IUDs and the “morning after” pill) would certainly seem to be legally murder. After all, they would involve the intentional (and possibly pre-meditated) murder of a legal person. This is, of course, one of the main intended consequences of such attempts. However, there would seem to be other consequences as well.

One rather odd consequence would be in regards to occupancy laws and regulations. These tend to be set by the number of persons present and unless laws are written to allow exemptions for zygotes, etc. then this would be a point of legal concern. This seems absurd, which is, of course, the point.

Another potential consequence is the matter of deductions for dependents. If a zygote is a person, then a frozen zygote is still a person and presumably the child of the parent(s). This would, unless specific laws are written to prevent this, seem to allow people to claim frozen zygotes as dependent children and thus take a tax deduction for each one. While the cost of creating and freezing zygotes would be a factor, the tax deductions would seem to be well worth it. Perhaps this is the secret agenda behind such legislation: people could avoid taxes by having enough zygotes in the freezer.

Of course a “zygotes are people” law might also entail that it would be illegal to freeze zygotes on the grounds that they would be confined or imprisoned without consent or due process. Naturally, laws would need to be written for this and they would also need to be worded so as to avoid making “imprisoning” a zygote in the womb a crime. There is also the matter of in vitro fertilization and whether or not certain processes would thus be outlawed by the “zygotes are people” law.  After all, some of the zygotes created do not survive. If these zygotes are people, IVF could be regarded as involving, if not murder, at least some sort  homicide or zygoteslaughter. Of course, outlawing such practices seems to be one of the intended consequences of these proposed laws.

Another point of concern is the matter of death certificates. After all, the death of a person requires a certificate and the usual legal proceedings. If a zygote were to be a legal person, then it would seem to follow that if a zygote died, then the death would need to be properly recorded and perhaps investigated to determine if a crime were committed. Naturally, specific laws could be written regarding various circumstances (for example, should women have to report every zygote that fails to implant-thus resulting in the death of a person). Perhaps the state would need to set up womb cameras or some other detector to monitor the creation of these new people so as to ensure that no death of a person goes unreported.

One rather interesting consequence is that such a law might set the precedent that any cell that could be cloned would count as a person (after all, as argued above, it would seem to share the relevant qualities of a zygote and the law in question mentioned cloning or any functional equivalent). This would have some rather bizarre consequences.

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Mad men and Hippies

Spurred on by the Occupy Movement, I’ve been thinking again about the connection between morality and our economic troubles.  I thought I blogged something about it at the start, and it turns out I did, in 2008.  Maybe it’s interesting reading again (Ethics Stimulus Package).  The idea, dredged up from a few lines owed to Adam Smith, is that we’re sometimes self-interested butchers and bakers (and maybe hedge fund managers), but we’re capable of acts of great selflessness too.  Capitalism needs at least a dose of the former to work, but it would seem that it needs at least some of the latter too.  I wondered then, and I wonder now, what leads us to ‘exercise our benevolent affections’, as Smith puts it.  Some ages feel more in tune with those affections, some times seem better placed to express them.  The interesting thing is what drives those changes, what pushes us, back and forth, between Mad Men and hippies, Gordon Gekko and … well, I’m having trouble settling on a contemporary name to set against his, but nevermind.  What is it, do you think, that makes moral sentiments wax and wane?